First Black Teachers in White Schools

Original Airdate: May 22 (2012)

This is Living Stories, featuring voices from the collections of the Baylor University Institute for Oral History. I'm Louis Mazé.

Among southern states, Texas was a leader in the desegregation of public education. In 1964, Texas accounted for approximately 60 percent of integrated school districts in the South.

Robert Lewis Gilbert was the first black teacher to be hired in a white school in Waco and describes taking on that position:

"Everybody was telling me before I went, Well, you know, white kids, you're going to really have to do something to teach them, you know. And—and there was a kind of a question in my mind as to whether or not I would be able to keep up with these kids if they were so smart. But after a few moments of observation during my student teaching, I detected that there were some—some geniuses, some average, and some mediocre whites just as there were blacks. And, boy, I said, ‘Well, you know, this is'—it dawned on me that, you know, people are people. And those kids, many of them, they'd looked for guidance toward knowledge, and they were looking for me to pour it out. And many people had me under the impression that I was to go there and these children were going to ask me certain questions and things that I wouldn't be able to answer them, and it would show me as inferior."

Maggie Washington pioneered teacher integration in the Midland Independent School District. She recalls the reactions from her new white co-workers:

"Even the custodian tried to give me a hard time. A lot of teachers were so disgruntled that they were working with a black teacher that they went to the principal. He was a Christian man. And he said, ‘Now, anybody who doesn't want to work with Maggie Washington, put your request for transfer on my desk.' So several of them put their request for transfer on his desk. And one man on my wing, he went to the principal and said, ‘I just want to know something. What criteria did you use to get Maggie Washington here?' And the principal told him; not only told him, he let him read it."

At a PTA meeting, that teacher made sure Washington spoke last:

"But, baby, I spoke. And I was talking about my favorite subject as related to everyday life. I brought it right on down front to them. When that meeting was over, the white parents just rushed up. Girl, you couldn't see me. And there was a—a teacher whose husband was there, and he was a doctor. He said, ‘Oh, put her on the air. She is good.' So the principal called me in the next morning and just fell out laughing. (laughter) He said, ‘You fixed them good.' I said, ‘I wasn't trying to. I just discussed social studies.'"

Washington also faced a challenge in winning over some of her students. She recalls an encounter with a girl in her fifth-grade class:

"I said, ‘Eldemina, what's wrong, honey?' ‘My mama doesn't like Negroes.' I said, ‘Oh, why?' She said, ‘She said they steal and fight.' I said, ‘Are those Negroes that live in Mexican town that—that's doing all that stealing and fighting?' ‘Oh, no ma'am.' (interviewee laughs) ‘Okay,' I said, ‘you tell your mother that.'"

The Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education is more than half a century behind us. But since then, de facto re-segregation has become a growing concern, especially in large cities in the Northeast and Midwest, where the most segregated schools today are located.

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